Feet on the ground and focused: Sailors determined to keep positive momentum going in Shandong double-header

It was a shock result that made the Asian football world sit up and take notice, one that Lion City Sailors’ Song Ui-young still cannot quite believe actually happened.

The Sailors tore up the script in their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) Group F match against Daegu FC, overcoming the South Korean outfit 3-0 on a Monday night that will forever be etched in the history books of Singapore football. 

Daegu’s defeat, however, not only gave the Sailors all three points and a night to remember – it also taught them a valuable lesson about the dangers of underestimating opponents.

And that is exactly what the Sailors will be looking to avoid, when they take on a youthful Shandong Taishan side this evening (21 April).

Ahead of the Sailors’ double-header against the Chinese side, Song said: “When we played against Daegu, they were maybe complacent against us. One of the Daegu players even told me that they didn’t really expect for us to be this strong. 

“So it’s the same for us – even if we play the young players from Shandong, we must not be complacent. If we take it easy against Shandong, and we suffer a bad result, then all the effort that we put in for the last game against Daegu will go to waste.”

Shandong – who sent their youth team to the competition – have conceded a whopping 12 goals without scoring any in their first ACL two games, and will head into their clash against the Sailors as massive underdogs.

But Song is taking nothing for granted. 

“We have to continue the momentum and show the quality of our game in the biggest competition in Asia. This is not only about the match itself – it’s about us representing Singapore football, so we have to put our best foot forward.”

Indeed, while Song made history by becoming the first Sailors player to score an ACL goal on Monday, he has since barely had time to celebrate and reflect on his achievement.

Nor, as it turns out, has the rest of the Sailors squad. Song revealed that although the team was buzzing from the massive three points against Daegu, they are now simply focused on upcoming challenges in the competition.

“We’ve got a huge confidence boost from the last game, and everyone is feeling really positive now,” said Song. “In fact, even after our first game against Urawa Reds (4-1 defeat), we already felt that we had the capability to challenge these bigger teams. That gave us the confidence to show our quality against Daegu,” he added, pointing to the second half performance that saw the Sailors take the game to the Japanese side. 

“The three points against Daegu has put us in a good place in terms of the group stages – but we still have to aim to win every single game in order to stand a good chance of progressing to the next round of the competition.

“That is why right now, we are all working hard and fully focused on taking all three points in our next game, against Shandong.”


Shandong looking for improvement against Lion City Sailors

They have come with a young squad that has endured a torrid time in their opening two matches in Group F of the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), but Shandong Taishan are digging their heels in. 

Ahead of Thursday evening’s (21 April) match against the Lion City Sailors, coach Yu Yuanwei called for his charges to shrug off the results of the last two matches and show just what they are made of when they step out onto the Buriram City Stadium pitch. 

“After two matches the team is really facing a lot of pressure, not just mental (pressure) but physical (pressure) as well,” said a stoic Yu. 

Shandong fell 7-0 to Daegu in their opening Group F match, then suffered a 5-0 defeat to Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds, with the team forced into a tiring exercise of defending in numbers in both matches. 

“The Lion City Sailors beat Daegu 3-0, that is an unexpected result. But for us, both the Sailors and Daegu are stronger than us…so even if we know the match may not go our way, we will still try to perform in our own game.” 

Shandong forward Abuduwaili Baihelamu sang from the same song book. 

The 19-year-old said: “The ACL is a really important opportunity for us (to show our ability). We will just focus on our own game and try to perform our best. In fact, in the past two games, I think I have shown some improvement both mentally and technically.” 

Yu may be forced into giving some of his players a rest, but it was something he had already expected. 

“We didn’t bring a huge squad, and we don’t have a lot of players, but the nature of the schedule will force us to do rotation anyway,” he said. 

“All we can do is try to perform better and surpass our performances in the last games.”


Cannot? Can. Historic win, but Sailors keeping eyes on the road ahead

Score the first goal, earn the first point, eke out a first win, and then build from there. 

Those were the targets set by Head Coach Kim Do-hoon for the Lion City Sailors as they embarked on their maiden Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League (ACL) campaign. 

But even the most optimistic of fans could not have predicted that the Sailors would hit all the targets in just their second-ever ACL game.

Last night (18 April), Kim’s men played with their heads in the right place and hearts on their sleeves to beat Daegu FC 3-0.

In doing so, they became the first Singapore side to beat a K-League team, and the first to score three goals in an ACL game. The Sailors are also only the second-ever club from the country to win a game in the ACL, as well as keep a clean sheet in the competition. The now-defunct SAFFC were the first team to achieve those milestones, with their 2-1 victory over China’s Henan Jianye in April 2010, as well as a goalless draw against Henan that same year.

“It’s a great upset that we caused and a historic night for the Lion City Sailors, and I want to thank and congratulate my players. I really want to enjoy this with them and the fans, but the next game is just around the corner,” stressed the 2020 ACL winner, Kim.

“We’ve to rest well, continue to work hard to get more points and try our best (in the remaining four group matches) to qualify for the last 16.”

Few would have predicted the result – this after 2021 K League 1 second runners-up Daegu – who reached the ACL Round of 16 as recently as last year – thrashed China’s Shandong Taishan 7-0 while the Sailors went down to a 4-1 defeat to Japan’s Urawa Red Diamonds on their competition debut three days earlier. 

But Kim Do-hoon – who holds a record of eight wins from 15 matches against Daegu when he was in charge of Ulsan Hyundai and was undefeated in seven previous encounters – had something up his sleeve, despite an injury sustained by star frontman Kim Shin-wook in the build-up to the game. 

Korean-born Singaporean Song Ui-young led the line well in place of Wookie – who has a record of six goals and three assists in 16 appearances against Daegu – and became the first Sailors player to net in the ACL, before Brazilian imports Diego Lopes and Pedro Henrique joined him on the scoresheet on a night to remember. 

Cannot? The Sailors certainly can. 

They burst right out of the blocks at the Buriram City Stadium in their all-blue away kit, and came close to scoring after just two minutes, when Song’s shot ricocheted off the post. 

Hassan Sunny pulled off a blinding save at the other end to keep out a long-range scorcher by Daegu midfielder Bruno Lamas in the 13th minute, but few would say the Sailors did not deserve the lead they took eight minutes later. 

Song leaped like a salmon to connect with Maxime’s gorgeous left-wing cross and sent the ball looping over a bemused Choi Young-eun in the Daegu goal. 

Kissing the Singapore flag emblazoned down the middle of his Sailors jersey as he wheeled away in celebration, Song stayed true to his words before the match. 

“We had a chat at meal time earlier in the day and Song promised to have a good game if he played in place of Shin-wook. He kept his promise and that’s the most important thing,” revealed Coach Kim. 

“He played in the no. 9 position last year in the league, so I know his ability in this position and he’s also a role model who is ready to play in any position for the team.”

Song, who was a constant thorn in the side of the Daegu defence on a night he was named Man of the Match, asserted that the goal fuelled the team’s confidence. 

“When I connected with the ball, I had a good feeling that the ball was going in and it did. I was very happy to score, and after that all of us felt that we could go on to win the game,” said the 28-year-old. 

“This win is not just for Lion City Sailors fans, it’s also for Singapore football.”

The Sailors took the one-goal lead into the break, but Daegu upped their ante in the second half and fashioned enough goal-scoring opportunities to turn the game around. Hassan stood tall in the Sailors’ goal, pulling off a few big saves to keep his team in front. Daegu were also uncharacteristically profligate in front of goal: captain Kim Jin-hyuk inexplicably failed to convert from a yard out, while 2012 AFC Player of the Year Lee Keun-ho saw his effort hit the woodwork. 

Kim’s men rode out the storm, stuck to their tasks, fending off wave after wave of Daegu attacks before sealing the historic win with two goals in the latter stages of the game. 

In the 71st minute, Maxime and Diego combined expertly in a lightning quick counter-attacking move that took out Daegu goalkeeper Choi, with the latter then showing the composure to slam home past two Daegu defenders on the line. 

The win was secured nine minutes later, with Pedro glancing in a header off Shahdan Sulaiman’s corner.

Kim’s men remained focused till the final whistle while Daegu ended the night with 10 men after Hong Chul was dismissed for a reckless lunge on Song. 

The Sailors are now second in Group F, three points behind leaders Urawa, who demolished Shandong 5-0 on the same night. 

The result and performance have now provided the Sailors with a solid platform to build on ahead of a crucial double-header against Shandong on 21 and 24 April. 

“To cope, excel and get a result against a big team while playing during the Ramadan period is a proud moment for our boys,” said Kim.  

“We put our heads down, kept our cool and played with confidence tonight – that’s something we need to keep doing to give our fans more to be proud of and excited about.”


Shin-wook a threat in a strong Sailors team, but Daegu are ready: Alexandre Gama

Daegu FC got their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) Group F campaign off to a flying start, resoundly beating Shandong Taishan 7-0 on Friday (15 April), but Head Coach Alexandre Gama insisted there is no complacency as the South Korean side lines up against the Lion City Sailors tomorrow (18 April) evening. 

Indeed, the Brazilian tactician is acutely aware of the threat posed by frontman Kim Shin-wook and a “strong” Sailors team.

“(Shin-wook) worked with me in the (South Korean) national team before, he’s a good player, a big name. It’s very difficult to mark him, he’s tall and strong, but they have good Singapore players and Brazilians (Diego Lopes and Pedro Henrique) too,” said Gama at the ACL pre-match press conference. 

The 54-year-old worked with the 1.98m Shin-wook during his time as assistant coach of the South Korea national team in 2011. 

“Lion City Sailors are a very good team. They may have lost the first game(a 4-1 defeat to Urawa Red Diamonds), but we know they will try to improve a lot (before our match),” said Gama. 

“But we are ready. My players have adapted to the weather here…and we’re very confident. We know all about the Lion City Sailors, and they know about us.” 

Gama has set his sights on leading Daegu into the Round of 16, and he believes a good performance and result against the Sailors will be critical to take his charges one step closer to that target – and there is no room for any complacency.  

“This will be totally different from our first game (the 7-0 win over Shandong Taishan). We don’t think that because of our first game, we can fly – no,” said a serious Gama.  

“We must do our job. We want a good game to get three points, but we know the Lion City Sailors will give us a difficult game.”


A positive mindset and a positive approach: Sailors ready for Daegu test

There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the Lion City Sailors dressing room in the immediate aftermath of their 4-1 defeat to Urawa Red Diamonds in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) on Friday evening (15 April).

Yes, not many had expected the Sailors – making their debut in the ACL – to come away with anything against the Japanese giants, who have won the region’s premier competition twice before.

But it stung. 

With the reigning Singapore Premier League (SPL) champions set to play Daegu FC on Monday (18 April) evening, Sailors head coach Kim Do-Hoon knows it is imperative his players pick themselves up quickly, and be ready to do battle on the pitch once more.

“Some players were definitely feeling a little down after the defeat to Urawa, and the whole team was not happy after the game,” Kim candidly revealed. “But I emphasised to them that what has happened has happened – let’s leave it in the past.

“We’ve got another important game coming up, so we just have to stay focused on that. We cannot let the defeat to Urawa affect us negatively. Let’s bring the spirit up and change the atmosphere of the dressing room, and go again on Monday.”

Daegu, however, will be no less tricky an opponent than Urawa, with the South Korean outfit coming into the game fresh off a 7-0 drubbing of Shandong Taishan.

Having come up against Daegu multiple times, both in his playing and managerial career, Kim is well-aware of the quality that the 2018 Korean FA Cup winners possess.

“I do know Daegu better than I do Urawa or Shandong, so maybe it can help us in that sense, because I can share more information with the players,” Kim said. “They’ve been playing with the same style of football for many years now, and I don’t expect them to change too many things. 

“Yes, Daegu scored seven goals against Shandong, but it’s not about what they did in the last game. What’s important is how we play against them, and what we’re going to do on the pitch as a group.”

When asked if he had a strategy to counter the undeniable threat posed by Daegu, Kim admitted that he had several game plans in mind.

One thing is for sure – the Sailors will not simply look to defend against Daegu.

“There are various plans in my coaching book that I’ve prepared for the ACL,” Kim mused. “I know the effect that conceding a goal can have on my boys and the team, but obviously, our idea is not just to park the bus and defend throughout the whole game.

“We need to attack, we need to score that goal, we need to put the ball in the net. But we have to wait for the right time to create that chance to score. More importantly, we have to be more competitive, and come into the game with a better mindset.”

Agreeing, Sailors’ deep-lying playmaker Shahdan Sulaiman added that the team will try to take the game to Daegu, as he said: “I think we need to be more proactive. Instead of waiting, we should try and test ourselves and match these teams, player to player. Let’s go out there and see where we stand.

“We showed in the second-half against Urawa that we can compete, so now we’ve just got to start doing that earlier in the game, not when we’re already down by a few goals.

“But at the same time, we can’t be naïve and play too openly, because they (Daegu) have the ability to hurt us. We have to play it smart, and hopefully we’ll be able to put on a much improved performance.”


Beaten, but not broken: Defeat, but positives to draw on in Sailors’ ACL debut

The Lion City Sailors put in a brave performance to mark their Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) debut, but were still beaten 4-1 by Japanese powerhouse Urawa Red Diamonds at Buriram’s Thunder Castle on Friday night (15 April). 

Up against the two-time ACL champions who reached the tournament’s final as recently as in 2017 and 2019, Kim Do-hoon’s men battled hard and even enjoyed a few good moments, but Urawa’s pace and panache proved to be the key difference. 

Speaking at the post-match press conference, Kim lauded his players’ efforts while acknowledging they were not their usual selves.

“Obviously, this being our maiden tournament, there was a bit of nervousness amongst the boys. Before we came to the stadium tonight, I told them let’s not give ourselves pressure and just go out and play, but that’s not easy because after all this is the highest tier of competition any player in Asia can compete in,” said the 51-year-old, who led Ulsan Hyundai to the 2020 ACL title.

“I could feel the nervous energy from the team even from the bench, but I have to say a big thank you to my boys who didn’t give up. As a coach, you want your players to give everything on the pitch and that’s exactly what they did tonight and I’m very proud of them.” 

Having made it clear that the Sailors are not here for holiday, Kim put out a strong and attack-minded eleven with fleet-footed wingers Maxime Lestienne and Gabriel Quak flanking Brazilian playmaker Diego Lopes behind two-time ACL winner Kim Shin-wook. 

The reigning SPL champions got off to a positive start, with captain Hariss Harun – one of only two Sailors, along with Shin-wook, with ACL experience – winning a series of aerial duels to set the tone as the Sailors pushed forward to threaten the Red Devils. 

The Sailors could have taken the lead seven minutes into the game through a well-worked move that started from the back, but Gabriel could only volley over from Maxime’s teasing left-wing delivery. 

Urawa were much more clinical, finding the breakthrough just a minute later with Danish forward and 2020 Norwegian league top scorer, Kasper Junker, ghosting into the penalty area to score with a brilliant angled header off Ataru Esaka’s cross. 

Sailors goalkeeper Hassan Sunny stood up strong to deny a goal-bound Esaka header in the 11th minute, but there was no stopping the Japanese international four minutes later. Esaka doubled Urawa’s lead, side-footing home after being teed up by Yusuke Matsuo. 

Kim switched things up midway through the first half with Hafiz Nor replacing Gabriel down the right, but Japan’s Emperor’s Cup holders continued their dominance, scoring a third on 42 minutes through a wonderfully-executed David Moberg Karlsson volley that went in off the post. 

The former Swedish international would, however, gift the Sailors their first ACL goal just a minute later. Under pressure from Maxime, Karlsson over-hit a backpass that flew past a bemused Zion Suzuki in the Urawa goal.

That goal gave the handful of travelling Sailors fans something to cheer about going into the break.  

But Urawa restored their three-goal advantage just 45 seconds after the restart with Atsuki Ito squaring across the six-yard box for Matsuo to tap into an empty net. It was hardly an ideal start to the second half, but the Sailors would grow into the game from then on going toe-to-toe with the Japanese giants. 

Maxime – one of Sailors’ best performers on the night – went on a few good runs down the left and almost set up a goal for Shin-wook in the 54th minute, but the South Korean was denied a goal on his 53rd ACL appearance as his speculative left-footed drive from range was tipped over the bar. 

Maxime then earned a free kick off experienced Japanese right-back Hiroki Sakai, before coming off for what looked like a hamstring injury in the 74th minute.  

Hafiz’s well-struck effort from the resulting freekick stung the palms of Urawa goalkeeper, Suzuki. 

Kim then threw on Nur Adam Abdullah and Song Uiyoung from the bench, as the Sailors battled to the final whistle of their ACL debut that was full of both lessons and positives to take forward. 

Next up on Monday (18 April) is a clash against 2021 K League 1 second runners-up Daegu FC, who thrashed China’s Shandong Taishan 7-0 in Group F’s opening fixture yesterday (15 April).

“In the second half, we kept our heads up, were more relaxed, and showed that we can play football. That’s something we need to keep working on in this campaign. 

“The reality is clear – the level is different – and we accept that, but the gap’s definitely going to be reduced through the five remaining group games,” stressed Kim. 

“I want to give my greatest gratitude to the fans who travelled a long way to come here to support us and I want to assure all our fans that we’ll try our best to get closer to the top teams in Asia while we’re here.”


Sailors present an “interesting” challenge in ACL’s Group F

They walked into Buriram’s Thunder Castle earlier today, carrying the dreams of the Lion City Sailors on their shoulders as the club stands on the cusp of marking a major milestone. But Head Coach Kim Do-hoon and skipper Hariss Harun hardly drew any attention from onlookers.    

While there was little fanfare as the duo attended the pre-tournament press conference for the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL), it was clear that the Sailors – underdogs in a Group F that features Urawa Red Diamonds, Daegu FC and Shandong Taishan – are not being taken lightly. 

“Their attacking style is very interesting for me,” said Urawa Head Coach, Ricardo Rodriguez, speaking at Buriram United’s Buriram Stadium home ground that is perhaps better known as Thunder Castle.

Urawa are the Sailors’ first ACL opponents, with the teams facing off in the opening Group F fixture on Friday (15 April) at 10pm (Singapore time). 

“They have a good target player in the team, and in their local league, they are very superior in comparison to the other teams. I think the Sailors have a very clear style, playing in 4-3-3,” added the 48-year-old Spaniard who is into his second year leading the defending Emperor’s Cup champions. 

Rodriguez was acutely aware of the importance of this opening game – especially in an ACL group stage that is played in a campaign format with the teams playing a match every three days – and his captain, veteran goalkeeper Shusaku Nishikawa, made the Japanese side’s intentions very clear. 

“We are a good team; we came to Buriram with confidence, and we are playing to win this game (against the Sailors),” he said. 

The Sailors have their work cut out for them, facing Daegu FC just three days after Urawa, on 18 April. 

Head Coach of the Korean side, Alexandre Gama, was wary of the threat posed by the Sailors’ Korean connection – Kim Do-hoon, and forward Kim Shin-wook.

“They are a very strong team, have invested so much (in the team), and have a good coach who knows Korean teams very well – that is one big advantage (for the Sailors),” said the 54-year-old who is familiar with the Sailors Brazilian pair, Diego Lopes and Pedro Henrique. 

But it was perhaps the attacking threat of Shin-wook that Gama understands most deeply, having worked with the 1.98m front man during his time as assistant coach of the South Korea national team in 2011. 

“(The Sailors) have a good Korean striker – he was my striker before in the national team – and he’s a very good striker,” he said. 

Gama’s approach to Group F matches perhaps sums up the challenge that lies ahead of Kim Do-hoon, Hariss and company, as the Sailors take their first steps into the ACL, Asian football’s biggest stage. 

“This is not an easy group to play in,” said Gama. 

“Every match is a cup final for us – this is the mentality I want in my team.” 


Maiden Voyage: Nur Adam – a young gun looking to fire on all cylinders on Asia’s biggest stage

His driving runs and insatiable energy down the left flank have been a constant feature domestically, culminating in team and personal triumphs in 2021 – the Lion City Sailors’ first-ever Singapore Premier League (SPL) title and a Young Player of the Year (YPOTY) gong. 

But Nur Adam Abdullah is not satisfied – he is out to test his ability against Asia’s cream of the crop as the Sailors embark on their maiden Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL) campaign this week. 

Ever since the team confirmed qualification to the 2022 ACL at the end of last season, his mind has never strayed away from making his mark on the continent’s biggest club competition. Even an unfortunate pre-season medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury in February did nothing to quell his ambitions. 

“I wasn’t too worried after Kak-Fizah (Sailors’ Head of Physiotherapy, Nurhafizah Abu Sujad) briefed me about the duration of recovery, and the thought of playing in the ACL was a big driving force for me to come back stronger. The key was just to get some playing time and match fitness back before the competition,” said the defender who turns 21 today (13 April). 

Nur Adam has since recovered quickly with the help of the Sailors’ medical department, getting a couple of SPL games under his belt, and is set to make a splash on the continental stage where the Sailors are placed in Group F with powerhouses from Japan, Korea and China. 

The young full-back is most looking forward to the matches against Urawa Red Diamonds, and possibly a duel against seasoned Japanese international, Hiroki Sakai, down the Sailors’ left flank. 

“Sakai’s a top player who has played in Europe and at World Cups. I know he was out injured (at end March), but I really hope he can come back in time so that I can test myself by playing against such top players to see the level I’m at and improve,” he said. 

Nur Adam has already had a taste of Japanese football, having gone on training stints with J-League clubs Matsumoto Yamaga and Omiya Ardija in 2015 and 2017 respectively, and he was left impressed by the strong work ethic and technical ability. 

A constant in Singapore’s national age-group squads, the 2018 Dollah Kassim Award winner’s career has gone from strength to strength, and he capped off an amazing 2021 by making his competitive debut for the Lions at the AFF Suzuki Cup. 

The tenacious Nur Adam has always set his sights high – he holds ambitions of becoming one of Southeast Asia’s top full-backs and knows the ACL is the perfect platform to propel his football, and his career, to the next level. 

“I want to be the best in my position, just like any other player. People are starting to notice me after the Suzuki Cup and I know there will be even more eyeballs on me – and us – at the ACL. It’s an opportunity for me to show that although I’m still young, I have the ability to compete and perform at this level,” said a deadpan Nur Adam. 

But he is acutely aware that the ACL is a whole different ball game. 

He has done a bit of homework, getting advice from his good friend Ryaan Sanizal, who played in last season’s competition with Tampines Rovers, as well as Sailors teammate Diego Lopes, who played in the UEFA Europa League with Portuguese club Rio Ave. 

“I watched most of Tampines’ ACL games – honestly they played some beautiful football, but were punished by some small mistakes. In SPL, we can still get away with those, but against high-quality opponents in the ACL, boom and it’s gone! Ryaan and I spoke and agreed – it’s definitely a game of concentration and trying to minimise mistakes.” analyzed Nur Adam. 

“Coach Kim Do-hoon has also emphasised the small details – not to do this or that because we will bring these mistakes or habits into the ACL, and will be punished. 

“Diego also shared with us that at this level, we have to play smart. It’s not so much about running up and down, instead we should play one or two touches, get some quick passes and combination plays going, to break through opposition defences.”

Six games played over 15 days in the Ramadan period will be a real test of resolve of the Muslim players in the Sailors’ ranks, but Nur Adam believes it is not an excuse for the Sailors not to perform at the ACL. 

“If top players like Paul Pogba and Mo Salah can fast and still perform, there should be no excuses for us. It’s all in the mind and I believe we can cope with it,” he said. 

Nur Adam knows the bigger issue of national pride intertwined with the Sailors’ performances in the ACL and has already set a personal goal for himself.  

“We’re representing Singapore, so our results in the competition matters to the image of our country’s football. So we have to go out there and give a good account of ourselves to show why we deserve that spot in the ACL,” he elaborated. 

“I’ve been working very hard to improve my all-round game, and I’m aiming for at least one assist, hopefully for (Kim) Shin-wook to score!” 


Maiden Voyage: Let’s prove we belong in the ACL: Hariss

It has been a meteoric rise for the Lion City Sailors since their official inception in 2020.

From making history as the first privatised football club in Singapore, to smashing the Singapore Premier League (SPL) transfer record with the purchase of Diego Lopes, then winning the SPL title in 2021, the Sailors have gone from strength to strength over the last two years.

The Sailors, however, will have their mettle well and truly tested later this month, when they take on their biggest challenge to date at the Asian Football Confederation Champions League (ACL). They will line up in Group F, alongside Japanese side Urawa Red Diamonds, South Korean outfit Daegu FC, and Shandong Taishan from China. 

This will be the first time that the club will be taking part in the ACL, where only Asia’s top clubs play.

Club captain Hariss Harun is acutely aware of the significance of this milestone in the Sailors’ ongoing quest to become a dominant team of the region.

Hariss, who has experienced success on the continental stage with his 2015 AFC Cup triumph in Johor Darul Ta’zim colours, said: “This is the premier club competition in Asia, featuring top players from Asian footballing powerhouses like Japan, Korea, and Australia, so it’s a great honour for us to be involved as a club and representing Singapore.

“I’ve always believed that it’s important for us to play in the ACL if we want to grow the club as a whole. Only by playing in such a prestigious competition can you make a name for yourself on the continent. 

“This is also a good chance to find out where we stand against the best teams in the region.”

In preparation for the ACL this year, the Sailors invested in strengthening their squad with top-quality players, including foreign stars Maxime Lestienne, Pedro Henrique, Kim Shin-Wook, and Singapore internationals, M. Anumanthan and Izwan Mahbud.

The former three have experience playing at the highest level – Maxime has played in the UEFA Champions League, and, like Pedro, has also featured in the Europa League, while Shin-wook is a two-time ACL winner.

Hariss believes these new signings will go a long way in helping the Sailors cope with the demands of the competition. 

In particular, the 31-year-old hailed Shin-wook as the key to the Sailors’ ACL campaign, saying: “Shin-wook is a natural goal-scorer. As you can see from the first few games, if you give him the ball where he wants it, he’s going to finish it off.

“He’s captained the South Korea National Team, played in World Cups, played and won in ACL finals, so he comes with a lot of experience at a very high level. I have no doubt he’s going to be instrumental for us in the ACL.”

While acknowledging the enormity of the task ahead, Hariss is quietly optimistic that the Sailors can spring a surprise or two in the competition.

At the very least, the Lions’ skipper wants the Sailors to prove themselves worthy of their spot alongside Asia’s best. 

He said: “Personally, the best gauge of success is when people watch our games, they recognise that we belong at this level. So we have to go out there to compete, and not be cowed by the opposition.

“All the players are excited to test ourselves against some of the best in the region, and we’re going to try to play our game. We’ve worked hard in pre-season specifically with the ACL in mind, and I think we’re ready for what’s to come.”

When asked how many points he was hoping the Sailors could garner in the group stage, Hariss joked: “The target is 18 points, of course! But really, it’s about going out there to be competitive, and most importantly, enjoy our football, because that’s when we’ll tend to play at our best.”